I don't normally like to go to food festivals because I always feel like I'd come away disappointed: long lines, overpriced food, stingy portions, and dreaded porta potties. However, I was willing to make an exception for vegan food festivals. I meant to go to the Vegan Street Fair back in March, but it was just too far of a drive on a Sunday. So when I found out that VegFest was going to be in town, I decided to make it my first food fest. It also seemed to offer a more robust experience featuring live music, vegan animal activist speakers, clothing and accessories, skincare, cooking demos, animal adoptions, and even a chance to pet pigs.
Following the Cars and Crowds
As soon as my boyfriend and I turned onto the street the festival was on, we saw hundreds of cars already parked along both sides of the roads including the unpaved median strip. We thought that getting there an hour after the event started would give us a fair head start, but wow, were we wrong. We parked about a mile away from the festival entrance and followed the crowds. Aside from the huge turnout that early in the day (with an estimated total of 12,000 in attendance), it was also cool seeing the diversity there: vegans/vegetarians of all ages and from all walks of life. And whether or not everyone there was vegan/vegetarian, it was inspiring to see that there is a strong interest in plant-based foods and a more compassionate diet and lifestyle.
Following Our Noses
Once we passed the information and merchandise booth, our senses were overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and especially smell. There was a lot to take in, from the long rows of vendor tents, to the main stage with speakers and live bands, and finally to the food. My eyes darted around, trying to read the different food banners as quickly as I could so that I could fall in line before the lines got even longer. Unfortunately, the one I'd been wanting to try was Donut Friend, which happened to have the longest line. It's a bit of a trek from my place, so I thought I could finally sample it at the festival. But after seeing the line, I decided it's probably better to just drive to its actual location in Highland Park.
My boyfriend and I went with the shortest line: Southern Fried Vegan BBQ. However, that doesn't mean their food wasn't good--it was really tasty, actually. Plus, the line had doubled its size by the time I turned around after getting our food. We split with the BBQ “Chickun” served over jambalaya and topped with corn and some type of chipotle mayo. We split it thinking that we would get to try other vegan fare, but little did we know how challenging that would be as the lines exponentially grew throughout the day.
Star Struck by the Gentle Barn Founders
While we were enjoying our one vegan dish, we saw that The Gentle Barn Founders Ellie and Jay were one table over from us. I didn’t know I’d get so “star struck”. I wanted to go up to them to tell them how inspiring they are and how much I appreciate their work—and that my very first blog post was about them—but alas, I just couldn't get myself to and continued eating. Plus, someone else they knew approached them and was talking to them for a while.
As I was working up the nerve to talk to them, a man trying to sell a timeshare to us sat at our table. By the time he left us alone, Ellie and Jay were already gone along with my chance to talk to them.
It was kind of surreal seeing change makers within the vegan and animal activism community all in one place. Non-profit organizations and animal rescues I read about and support were stationed at tents, one after another. It really gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling of community—of being around like-minded people with a common, philanthropic goal. (Seeing how much I geeked out at VegFest, I can already imagine how I’ll be at the Animal Rights National Conference that I plan on attending in July.)
Visiting the Animals: The Heart of the Festival
After weaving our way through the rows of vendors (and trying my hardest not to buy every merchandise), we came upon the animals: those who found their happy endings, and those still waiting for theirs (cats and dogs looking for forever homes).
Some of the animal rescue groups there were Kitten Rescue, Rockin’ Rescue and Best Friends Animal Society, which was literally a mobile adoption event with its cute and clever RV type of setup. It had a pop-up awning that revealed the dogs behind the glass windows. The Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation was also there, but I’m bummed that I didn’t get to see them; I didn't realize they were one of the participants until I wrote this post.
The only other animals I saw were two pigs sleeping peacefully in their pens, and a rabbit laying on someone's lap while being pet. They were rescued by New Life Animal Sanctuary: Life After Labs, a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating laboratory animals.
Filling Up on Vegspiration
After ogling at the cute animals, we went into the Vegspiration Tent that was packed with people listening to Nathan Runkle, the founder and president of Mercy for Animals.
Founder of Mercy for Animals - "The Future is Vegan"
Nathan opened with a Martin Luther King quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Below is a breakdown of his speech, but you can watch the video here, posted by journalist and animal rights activist, Jane Velez-Mitchell.
“…Using our voices to affect change. We are all in such a privileged position to be born human; to be in a time and a place where we have free will and ability to talk about things that must be addressed in our society including our treatment of animals.”
Nathan spoke about Jane Goodall, and her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees in Africa (having observed them for over 45 years); how she tore down the “boundaries and barriers that we as humans had erected around themselves [sic] and others in the animal kingdom.” He also drew up side-by-side photographs to show that the cold steel of a stethoscope evokes the exact same reaction from a non-human baby primate and a human baby. (This just makes the stories of animal laboratory testing even more heartbreaking.)
He shared the story of two stray dogs who were friends, and after the female died, the male dog stayed by her side for six hours licking her face, nudging her and protecting her. Proof of loyalty and friendship.
A few years ago, thousands of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness saying, “all animals share the same level of awareness and consciousness” (this ranges from birds to rodents to octopuses).
Farm animals are “ghosts in our industrial machines.”
Chickens communicate to their young before they even hatch. They can even pass information along from one generation to the next. He cited a study where chickens were given two kinds of corn: one that was light-colored and healthy, and one that was dark-colored and tainted with chemicals. The first generation learned which one was healthy, avoiding the corn that made them sick. Three to four generations of chickens later, they found that those chickens had learned to avoid the corn that was tainted.
“Pigs form deep maternal bonds with their young, and have great long term memories.” In a Penn State study, a group of pigs were presented with three different objects:
- A dumbbell they were taught to step over
- A ball they were taught to sit next to
- A Frisbee they were taught to pick up
Three years later, these pigs were shown the same objects without training, and 100% of them remembered those behaviors.
Pigs even know how to play remote-controlled video games, understanding cause and effect. (So to those who say that we don’t eat dogs because they’re smart, and farm animals are dumb, well how’s that for proof of intelligence?)
Dr. Donald Broom said pigs "have the cognitive ability to be sophisticated. Even more so than dogs and certainly three-year-olds."
Daily News, a small Massachusetts newspaper, published an article with the headline, “Strange noises turn out to be cows missing their calves”. Neighbors of a local farmer kept calling police saying they heard non-stop screaming. Police found that those screams were from mother cows whose babies were taken from them to be used in the veal industry, illustrating the emotional trauma that cows endure. This proof of the remarkable bond between mother cow and calf is reminiscent to The Gentle Barn’s story of Karma the cow and her calf who was sent off for slaughter.
Nearly 9 billion animals in the U.S. are killed for food—that’s nearly 300 animals per second.
There isn’t a single federal law that protects farm animals. Things like mutilating animals, scalding or putting them into a grinder alive, and keeping them in cramped cages that cause disfigurement are completely legal. The agricultural industry is so powerful that they can write laws that benefit them no matter how much pain and suffering it causes animals.
Nathan also shared the story of Virgil Butler, a former slaughterhouse worker turned animal activist. Virgil worked eight years at Tyson Foods, where he was responsible for killing 80,000 chickens every day. After witnessing one too many horrors of the sadistic abuse inflicted on farm animals—from ripping birds’ heads off, to putting ice bombs in them and watching them explode, to stomping on them—Virgil was so disturbed he could no longer continue working there. Nate said that “Virgil was not a man with great financial means, but he was a man with a conscience” (a picture was shown of Virgil holding a chicken with his old, dilapidated trailer in the background). He became a vegan animal rights activist, touring the country and educating people about the horrors of slaughterhouses. He even started a blog as a form of self-therapy and to help animals.
Nathan didn’t talk about this part, but in 2006, farm animals lost one of their biggest advocates when Virgil unexpectedly died in his sleep at just 41 years old. Although he spent only four years (since he quit his job at the Tyson processing plant) fighting for farm animals, he left a lasting legacy for the animal rights activism community through his eyewitness accounts of being on the "killing floor" of a slaughterhouse.
Virgil is just “one example of the power of the human spirit—how we all have the ability to pivot and move in the direction of kindness and compassion, no matter what our background is, no matter how deeply engrained you may feel you are in supporting these industries.”
Hampton Creek Foods, which specializes in plant-based egg products (like Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough), is the fastest growing food company in the world. Bill Gates backed the company after tasting a muffin made without eggs. He even said, “The future of ‘meat’ is vegan.”
"There is a huge burden on our shoulders...to right this wrong. We have a rapidly expanding population, we have climate change, we have the populations of fish in our oceans being decimated. We cannot plead ignorance any longer. We know too much."
The Gentle Barn Founder on Realizing Her Dream
Ellie Laks, founder of The Gentle Barn, took the stage and shared the moment her passion for and dedication to animals began. She was five years old and found herself in a field brimming with life—from flowers to grasshoppers to monarch butterflies—hundreds of them, in fact. She laid still until she was completely covered with butterflies, and in that moment she had never felt more connected to nature—"so full of love and purpose."
She talked about how as a child she would rescue animals, and that her parents would get rid of them whenever she was in school. That led to a temper tantrum where she declared that one day she would have a place full of animals and show the world how beautiful they are. This temper tantrum became her mantra, which then became an obsession.
Ellie told us how she decided she would no longer eat animals. She was 11 years old, and her school brought in a chicken. All the other kids were running around being loud and crazy, while the chicken was shaking in fear. Ellie cradled the chicken, petting her, telling her that she would be alright and that no one was going to hurt her. That gentle scene was interrupted by the principle who snatched the chicken out of her arms saying, "Don't pet the chicken! She's gotta go to the slaughterhouse!" That was the moment Ellie made the connection that chicken and rice was the same as that chicken she was petting.
What I found most inspiring was how she made her lifelong vision of having a haven for animals a reality. Seventeen years ago, she came across a petting zoo where she witnessed animals suffering tremendously. But what really struck her was the same thing she saw in the chicken years ago as a child: everyone was completely oblivious to the animals' fear and suffering. Parents were smiling and taking pictures of their kids on ponies who were deformed and in pain. "It pained me so much that people could be so blind," Ellie said. (This is how I feel when I see people riding horse-drawn carriages and trolleys.)
As Ellie ran out of the petting zoo, a goat was right at the exit, looking straight into her eyes, as though she were begging to be helped. Ellie asked the owner of the goat if she could buy her, and after being rejected, she waited there for 12 days until the owner finally relented. After rehabilitating the goat, Ellie went back to the owner of the petting zoo to rescue the other animals with medical conditions. Months later, she looked out the window to her half-acre backyard and saw all the animals she had rescued, realizing she had achieved her dream.
And finally, the part about Ellie's speech that really spoke to me was: What do we do once we know about the animal suffering? How do we not go around shaking people awake?
"How do we get this message across faster? How do I not be filled of rage and hate because there is so much suffering going on out there that I can't stop?"
This is what I've been struggling with since I began consuming all the stories about the plight of animals. It's why I started this blog--a way to do something to help animals and not feel so powerless.
Hearing Ellie talk about this, and the breakdown she had knowing that there are so many other animals who need help, was just what I needed.
Her resounding message and advice:
"Just like if we think this world is horrible, if we think there's suffering, if we think there's horrible people out there, we are gonna find evidence of that...but the same is true that when we think there is goodness in the world, when we think there is loving people in the world, when we think there's heroes in the world come to help this planet, that's also true, and there's also evidence of that."
Basically, to keep your sanity, you can't allow yourself "the luxury of focusing on the darkness." You can "acknowledge it" and you "need to be aware of the problem," but you can't immerse yourself in it.
So when she passes a field of cows knowing their fate, her mind starts racing wondering how to save them, and then she stops herself, closes her eyes and says:
"Please angels, help me create a gentle world. Please angels, empower me to create a gentle world. And I turn the spiraling into a prayer of empowerment."
Another important message is that if we, as animal lovers and activists, can't feel and envision a world where animals are loved, respected, happy and free, then who else will? We have to "hang on to that peaceful world with every fiber of our being." That way you carry that into everything you do, and in every conversation you have with people. Immerse yourself every day, even for just five minutes, into the possibility.
She closed it out citing a study done by scientists to test the 100th monkey theory, a subject of much debate. The scientists drew a picture with 200 faces, went around America asking people how many faces they spotted--they saw nine, at most. Then they went around Europe, showing people the 200 faces. When they went back to America, all the people they showed the picture to knew where the 200 faces were, which "supported their claim that we're all connected. We're all one."
Regardless of whether or not this theory is true, it still has an inspiring, idealistic message: that if enough people believe in a world of compassion, it can somehow be transmitted telepathically, and become our collective consciousness. Ellie went on to say that we don't need to awaken everyone. We just need to continue shining light for the animals. Be a living example. Share stories in a loving way. And soon, we'll have a peaceful world in our lifetime.
You can watch her impassioned speech here.
Leaving the Festival Feeling Full
Although I didn’t get to fill up on food, I got my fill of inspiration and hope, which made the entire VegFest experience worthwhile and unforgettable.